(from the onlooker's perspective)

Diaspora. Scattering, dispersal, dissemination, displacement, exodus. Becoming scattered amongst other peoples, outside national boundaries. People fleeing, sometimes voluntarily, but often forced to abandon their country and language. They often depart unexpectedly, with only a few memories in their rucksack, or even just in their coat pocket. In the St Joseph Chapel in Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady, twelve bronze mattresses divided into two rows of six lie directly opposite one another. A meditation on existence and identity, in the most tangible form, that helps us gain insight into the motivation behind what we do in order to (continue to) exist, to further develop our individuality.

We could view Diasporalia as a reference to the current refugee problem to which we cannot turn a blind eye (any more). We could thereby read the work as a triptych doors – that open and close again. But let’s go a step further and interpret it as a (post-historical) manifesto. Peter Paul Rubens and Koen Theys exist side by side here. And although the temporal gap between Rubens and Theys is more than 400 years, both manifest a similar creative force: the drive for (the restoration of) a sense of cosmic solidarity.

People are at the heart of the work, as in all of Koen Theys’s oeuvre. People who rebel against existing political, social and/or religious views, who go in search of the possibility of giving themselves a new purpose. He feels that identity is a strange thing. Does individual identity actually exist? For Theys there are no limits to identity. A person’s entire nature changes constantly. It is a fluid movement, like the current in a river that carries you along. Our own ‘I’ is constantly fed and developed by external influences or impulses, factors that surround us. Without the other, the I does not exist. In order to – find out the truth about yourself, you need to obtain that truth through the other – an idea with which the artist stresses the degree to which the other is essential for our existence, and equally essential for the knowledge that we have of ourselves.

Identity as leitmotif. But the underlying mechanism in Diasporalia, the morphology, consists of the twelve bronze mattresses. A chance visit to a church in Brussels where hundreds of refugees’ mattresses were lying on the floor greatly affected the artist; a tragic image that he could not shake off. When years later he saw the effigies of cardinals on their marble beds in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, all the pieces fell into place – an example of how ideas ripen for a long time before they take ‘shape’ and of how the artist wrestles for a long time with the impossible possibility of creating an aesthetically ‘acceptable’ depiction of something tragic/dramatic.

In Diasporalia the artist does not let a single detail escape his attention. Each mattress is a sequence of developments. We are looking at a dramatic scene. A large-scale, daring and overwhelming depiction that cannot leave any viewer unmoved. But ... the people are missing. Where are they? A dehumanisation which makes this still life even more inhuman. And although there is not a single living movement to be detected in this entire display, as an onlooker you definitely feel that something is happening. A dynamic that is emphasised – it appears – by a few colour accents, white and blue alongside the gold, referring to the royal, the rich, in shrill contrast with the poverty and misery represented here by the objects – which further highlights the baroque aspect of this work. Details are thereby particularly emphasised or magnified, which reminds us of the chiaroscuro used by baroque artists to further emphasised or the parts that most speak to the imagination or that most affect the emotions. In Diasporalia those details sometimes make the depiction real, and sometimes create distance. We look at a mattress on which personal items lie. Using those possessions we automatically seek to identify the (absent) individual, the refugee who, as soon as he crosses a border, renounces all his rights. He becomes the residue, the person who is missing something essential: himself.

Despite its sombre background, Diasporalia points towards freedom and what it brings: happiness. In this work freedom is synonymous with happiness, an impossible condition that cannot be resisted. Diasporalia shows us the price of that freedom and that happiness. And although happiness often means that we enter into a relationship with other people, and must cross borders to do so, yet we ultimately always fall back on ourselves. This is founded on the condition in which human beings find themselves. The inability to stop. The desire to constantly remain in motion, to carry on, although they do not know where they are heading. There is the surrender and the ecstasy, the Dionysian nature of the work. There is the real vulnerability that the artist shows and that we prefer not to recognise. Perhaps that is the Apollonian meaning of Theys’s installation. We are gazing at an ephemeral euphoria of freedom, but also at transience. Themes that also touch our own lives. What is life? What’s it really all about?

Is art more about destruction than about creation? Anyone who follows Koen Theys’s work knows that this is only partly true. Theys believes in continuity. Throughout his oeuvre, continuity and identity flow into one another. And so also with human beings in Diasporalia the border-crossing human being who must create himself afresh in order to become who he truly is, who creates the opportunity for recognition with which he can differentiate himself from the other, and who thereby strives for continuity despite everything that he experiences and which causes him to change, whilst he must give himself a new destination. For the art project Het Vlot. Kunst is (niet) eenzaam (The Raft. Art is (not) Lonely), which ran in Ostend until the middle of April 2018, 73 contemporary artists were asked to provide an existing or new work inspired by the early 19th-century painting The Raft of the Medusa by the Romantic painter Théodore Géricault. Géricault’s raft depicts the true story of shipwreck survivors who were left to their fate. The work shows the survivors on the wooden raft, their only salvation, with, in the very far distance, a ship, their only hope. Death Fucking Metal (2013), the artwork which Koen Theys contributed to that project, shows how transience also affects our own lives. We see a group of old rock musicians, icons of a Western cultural history, on a stage – their ‘raft’ – dazed, asleep, hanging exhausted over their instruments. The myth of the rebellious and conceited rock musician of earlier years which now no longer generates any meaning. The sleeping figure is literally suffering loss of face. He is (also) the residue. Just like in Death Fucking Metal, the characters in Diasporalia are wrestling with the (temporary) absence of continuity. An existential identity crisis which manifests itself in a break with a tradition, with an era that has nestled itself somewhere in history and firmly intends to remain there. In Death Fucking Metal the old rock musicians don’t want to believe this. They slump over their guitars, microphones, keyboards and drum kits. They appear to be asleep, or staring blankly ahead. A sleep that results not from tiredness, but from an acceptance of the futility of their rebellion. The (absent) characters in Diasporalia also know what’s going on, and now rely solely on their instinct. The mattress serves as a metaphor for the ‘hostage’ refugee who experiences the proximity of freedom as a poisoned chalice.

Great art offers a window on transcendence – experiences that are deeper than the experiences
you previously had, creating a greater life. Diasporalia exposes the deep-rooted, ardent human urge to survive. The display that we view from the sidelines is (merely) one scene about leaving ‘traces’, of desperate, futile attempts to connect yourself to life. Set against that, Diasporalia represents the immanent mood that affects us as a disarming process. The artist links to feelings that we perhaps didn’t know we had – an involution that helps us to discover our shadows. We look at Diasporalia and have the sense that the artwork is saying to us: ‘Something has to change.’ To which we reply internally: ‘Certainly, but how?’ What is taking place here before our eyes helps us to feel compassion for the broken and damaged sides of ourselves and of society. We come to realise that everyone suffers and that many people are experiencing crises that are (much) worse than ours. The absent person in this still projection has been translated into the person that was missing from ourselves.

A civilisation that has lost its religion; that is primarily dependent on culture; on breaching boundaries, sensation and shock, without having any religion against which to define itself because we have lost it. Art must offer us a new ‘kind of belief ’, even if we are unsure whether that world is real or just a story. A phenomenon that particularly characterises the past century of modernism and postmodernism, but also of scepticism. Koen Theys is not seeking to shock. What Theys does is build on the past but also expressly reject it – the idea that concepts or ideas can only be understood within a specific era. He believes that every history (as well as its activities) is determined, or only finds an end purpose when it is ready for a new authority. As Hegel says: ‘The truth which is briefly immaterial and which forms the source of a new truth in a post-historic era.’1

Postmodern society has lost its belief in large associations. Jacques Lacan described this as: ‘The great Other is dead.’2 A break with traditions (ideology, authority, religion) which gradually leads to social disintegration, the absence of a (social) framework. Viewed that way, we could argue that we are all (to some extent) shipwreck survivors and/or refugees – each of us looking for a framing context in which we can shape a new history. Lacan compares this absence of a framework with the imperfect expressiveness that you have in a language of which you do not know the grammar (the framework). Is that not the nature of art, to create an appropriate language that is accessible to every person’s interpretation? It’s a question of imagination.

In this context Theys talks about the nihilism of postmodernism. From the 1970s onwards, belief in modernism and progress started to wobble, since none of the ideals of modernism were proving achievable. As a result of that nihilistic attitude, people started refering back to the baroque from the 1980s onwards. Historically Koen Theys views the baroque as a first form of mannerism – the shapes from the Renaissance were adopted, but they were developed further until they bordered on the grotesque. Modernism strived to get to an essence of things. Postmodernism assumed/assumes that a possible essence could also be that there is no essence of things. Baroque shapes are a good expression of this. They do not appear to want to get to an essence at all. Quite the contrary. In his art Theys strives for a truth, an essence, but each time working from the assumption that that essence is something fluid, something intangible. He therefore describes his visual idiom as baroque, albeit that it has arisen from a conceptual approach.

Koen Theys’s entire oeuvre bears the imprint of a long history. The eternal return as a cyclical interpretation fluctuates in his work in a dialectic between ‘something that disappears’ and ‘something that comes back in its place’. Anyone who ‘visits’ a work by Koen Theys will (often) enter into a dialogue with the past. When does the image acquire meaning again? When it is re-read, re-viewed, re-visited. In Belgian Landscapes (1994) the artist takes us back to the 1990s. We re-experience the (un)aesthetic Belgian street scene of that era. A contemporary, copied, one might say ‘kitsch’ architecture, inspired by the familiar ‘farmhouse’ style, which leaves a grey and monotonous impression at first glance – an ‘ugliness’, but with such intriguing value that it cannot help being significant and beautiful (again). How does the context influence the perception of the work? This is a question that has long preoccupied – or still preoccupies – American artist and photographer Joseph Kosuth (b. 1945). In What’s the Point, a more recent work by Koen Theys from 2007, we are looking at a picture of people grouped close together. Each of them holds one or more objects, as the bearer of their identity, we as the onlooker might think – each object in its own right could say something or reveal something about that person’s individuality; or it might not. How do we think about a work of art? Marcel Duchamp raised the philosophical question about the nature and function of art when he was the first person to present an everyday object as a work of art, with his urinal, Fontaine, in 1917. A readymade – a milestone in contemporary visual ar t. In What’s the Point? we recognise the portrait of Koen Theys himself on the far right, carrying – not coincidentally – Joseph Kosuth’s book Art after Philosophy (1969) in his hands, with which the artist shows us in practical terms to what extent, in Kosuth's words, ‘the image can replace reality’.3

In Diasporalia Koen Theys enters into a dialogue with the 17th-century Flemish baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens. The highly realistic and dramatic pictures of the baroque tradition no longer embody our reality, yet their impact remains undiminished. Medieval philosophers used the Italian term barocco as a synonym for an obstacle. Koen Theys would say ‘twist’, after the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze in his book Le pli – Leibniz et le baroque (1988). Deleuze considers the philosophers of modernity, who wanted to penetrate to the essence of things, to be authoritarian thinkers, people who strived for an absolute truth – Hegel, Marx but also Wittgenstein ... Deleuze opts not to think linearly in his writings, but to fold philosophy into twists.4 Koen Theys believes that that twist (barocco, baroque) also has something frivolous, something playful which means it is not really taken au sérieux. One could accuse a baroque or neo-baroque artist such as a Jeff Koons or a Wim Delvoye of being superficial, but according to Theys that ‘playful frivolity’ can also arise from a conceptual approach. The greatest conflict currently to be found in contemporary art appears to be between that baroque frivolity of artists who are firmly established in the art market – particularly Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst – on the one hand, and on the other hand the artists who are resisting the art market through socio-political documentary work. One of these artists is Renzo Martens. In Diasporalia Koen Theys (also) strives to bring together that ambiguity, those two incompatible extremes.

Our democracy needs imagination. The Italian Renaissance philosopher Giambattista Vico argued as far back as 1725 that reason is not sufficient in order to understand religion, politics and power. We need fantasia for this – imagination. Without imagination we cannot conceive what it means that the continuing existence of the worldly, nature, humans and their identity is threatened. How can we regain our belief in the future? By giving form to the continuity of the worldly once again. Artists can be the first to show us the challenges with their inventive creativity.

It is not possible to reach back to make something from the past present again. But a sculpture or painting creates the illusion that this is possible. As far back as prehistory humans understood that we need imagination in order to understand better. To this day, wall paintings or frescoes leave impressions behind of an era in which humans sought – and found – their belief and/or religion in nature. Images do more than serve as an image. We find that they act as a propelling force, a cyclical occurrence on the straight line of our Western history. In the 17th-century the churches were dressed with overwhelming and dramatically charged baroque art as part of the Counter-Reformation. Extravagant shapes and the vehement expression of emotion were designed to restore humans to ecstasy – to bring art closer to the people. At the end of the 18th century the Romantics again placed their faith in art as a surrogate for religion as a reaction to the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. Art would be able to forge a new bond with that which transcends humanity. Heroic depictions of love and friendship and romantic contemplations of the beauty of nature propelled people to ecstasy again.

With Diasporalia the artist shows the darker side of that ecstasy. The onlooker here is gazing at the proximity of death, or of freedom. Here (too) something is happening which will have a disastrous outcome for many people – or maybe not. The destruction or disruption of their home has left traces. Objects as silent witnesses that work on the imagination. A suitcase, a hat, a teddy bear, an exercise book, a coat, some pencils, trainers, a handbag … and even a clock, which at first sight appears absurd or surreal in this sharply realistic setting, but could equally act as a bearer of events that already exist, that we merely need to propel ourselves towards. We were there, and later we will be somewhere else, just like the hands of a clock.

Stranded attributes, icons of their martyrdom, as evidence of their valour, or of their vulnerability. The drama in this display is made even more intense by the absence of human beings, the bodies behind the iconic. The artist thereby emphasises the presence of the non-human, as if the artist wants to show us the anonymous abstraction, the flesh behind the armour. The high degree of vulnerability in the work encourages the onlooker to examine that abstraction, so that after a while you almost start to ‘see’ the absent person like a missed encounter. The human factor enters, as a result of which the abstracted acquires a face, and the suffering a name … war.

A tragic beauty. As the viewer you are briefly unbalanced – an image of vulnerability that is skilfully created here, but that we prefer not to see. The tragedy lies in the breath-stopping realisation that the battle is far from over, an ongoing path of suffering, probably until the end of time – order and disorder as two enmeshed cogwheels. The beauty lies in the nature of the artwork itself. The onlooker’s attention is focused on the immorality of the divergence that is (just about) required in order to give meaning to life and feel linked to other people. A form of loss of control that appeals to a primaeval urge, to the feeling of being part of something, that beautiful feeling of connectedness, to go through fire (quite literally) for one another or, in the poetic words of Novalis: ‘Love is most beautiful in death.’5

To what extent are human beings able to remain human beings? What love is so holy that sacrifices and spilt blood are the price that we are prepared to pay for it? Are we hearing a patriotic hymn of praise here? We speak about the ‘theatre of war’, because – just as on stage – a war presents people with different standards; they enter a different state of consciousness. British political philosopher John Nicholas Gray (b. 1948) argues that war is a game in which our normal identity and the normal limits of morality are set aside.6 He cites the example of the civilian or soldier who claims that they also embrace war as a liberation which brings people ecstatic joys such as comradeship, solidarity, loyalty. Or that of the child of the refugee mother and widow who says that above all she misses the church in her country of origin, where everyone comes together in order to find security: ‘We love one another so much in wartime …’

To see Diasporalia is, in the first instance, to have the experience of an omnivalent ‘locatable’ work, precisely because it can (unfortunately) be located in many places on the line of our Western history. The (un)enforced flight or (un)desired emigration of people in the hope of re-creating a better future for themselves and their descendants. The path of suffering that many have walked since the start of time, including in our own part of the world, looking for that other, in order to give meaning again together – an eternally recurring process. Koen Theys is not religious. Not in the absolute sense. He does not believe in a prime mover nor in a living soul after death. Belief for him lies in the people who are willing to realise today that they can only ‘become’ through and because of the other. His work forces us to surrender, an eye-opener that makes us believe in the need for a natural (or flowing) continuity between humanism and theism, between person and belief, or rather between the belief in people together – continuing to nurture the hope that we can evolve towards one another with one another, regardless of your background, colour or religion. Diasporalia is a biting and disturbing work, but simultaneously it gives hope. It bathes in light, and contains a broad palette of humanity. It is vulnerable, immersive, motionless, but also strong, considered, dynamic.

Kathy de Nève – catalogue ‘Diasporalia’
April 2018

1 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Fenomenologie van de Geest, April 2012, Boom, Amsterdam, p. 249.

2 Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, May 2001, new edition, p. 181.
3 Joseph Kosuth, Art after Philosophy, November 1991, MIT Press (MA), p. 86.

4 Gilles Deleuze, Le pli - Leibniz et le baroque, September 1988, Les Editions de Minuit, p. 98.
5 Novalis, Hymnen an die Nacht, 1992, Uitgeverij Christofoor Zeist, p. 23.

6 John Nicholas Gray, Zwarte mis: Apocalyptische religie en de moderne utopieën, 2007, Ambo, p. 171.